The 5 Best Releases of Quarantine
The world may have slowed down last year, but the great releases didn't.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic eviscerating the music industry on nearly every level in 2020, new releases continued to come out, giving all of us something to cling to in the stormy times we were enduring. While I’m grateful for many of the records released last year, a few stood out among their contemporaries. Here are my picks for the five best releases of 2020.
5. Do You Feel OK? by Picturesque
RELEASE DATE: April 24, 2020
Equal Vision Records
Though Picturesque has been vaguely on my radar since the release of their debut album Back to Beautiful, I was never particularly interested in them…until this year, when Do You Feel OK? appeared on my Spotify Radio. It snagged my attention from the first notes and held it all the way through.
This album is clearly the result of extreme misery and heartache. In the opener “Necessary,” vocalist Kyle Hollis addresses an ex-partner with the agonized chorus “all that you wanted was all you could take / you left me alone with the pain / I thought those flowers would get you to stay / but roses just die anyway.” The anguish present in the lyrics is juxtaposed by the bouncy catchiness of their delivery. Relational discord and heartbreak are a prevailing theme here, appearing in songs like “ATTN:,” “Swipe,” and “Holding Me Down”; yet all of this discontent is buoyed up and made more palatable by irresistible hooks and Hollis’ clean, crisp vocals.
Relationship woes aren’t the only thing troubling the members of Picturesque on this album. In “Crimes,” a dark and self-reflective tune punctuated by groovy bass, airy synth, and almost singsong-y vocals, Hollis confesses to various addictive vices. He admits to “sippin’ my feelings / forgetting the reasons / drinkin’ my demons / drinkin’ my demons away,” despite knowing how harmful such indulgences are.
The record reaches its emotional nadir with the brooding track “Pray.” Hollis muses “I should pray a little more and think a little less / the devil’s in my head and he won’t let me rest” in a subdued and hushed tone, a stark contrast to his lofty singing style throughout the rest of the album. He despairs, “am I just a slave? / Am I going to waste? / I am just a slave / I can only feel pain” before ultimately railing against the person who caused him to feel this way, demanding they “choke on every f****** word you’ve ever said…until you need to use my body / tear my heart to shreds.” The words and their tortured delivery are emphasized with unnerving synth and discordant effects that pull the listener further into Hollis’ shattered mental state.
Do You Feel OK? came out in the early days of the pandemic, and its timing couldn’t have been better. The themes of disaffection, isolation, and crushing despair are easy to relate to, all wrapped up in one shockingly accessible, catchy package that had me hitting the repeat button throughout 2020.
RECOMMENDED SONGS: “Necessary,” “ATTN:,” “ Crimes,” and “ Pray”
4. Transitional Forms by Sharptooth
RELEASE DATE: July 10, 2020
Pure Noise Records
Sharptooth appeared on the hardcore scene in 2017, armed with their ferocious debut Clever Girl. That record earned them a reputation for fast-paced and chaotic hardcore, as well as for socially conscious messages delivered via vocalist Lauren Kashan’s fierce screams. Transitional Forms continues in this tradition. It’s a strong sophomore release packed with blistering instrumentation, visceral vocals, and unrepentant and harsh political commentary.
Transitional Forms begins with the tongue-in-cheek “Say Nothing (In the Absence of Content).” Here, Kashan and co. vent their frustrations with the hardcore genre and the meaninglessness that has permeated it. She shrieks, “this is a song about nothing / in the absence of content / I hope you’ll forget all this s*** never meant a thing.” The song also attacks certain segments of the hardcore fanbase, particularly those who enjoy violence and brutality; in a mockery of the “mosh call” tradition of hardcore shows, Kashan sneers, “now this is the part of the song / where we’re gonna slow s*** way down for you / so you can all kill each other / it doesn’t even matter what I’m saying here anyway” during the bridge, right before shouting “mosh call / generic mosh call” repeatedly.
It’s not all fun, games, and parody though. The very next track, “Mean Brain,” brutally dissects mental illness, severe self-criticism, and the effect they can have on a person. Kashan unleashes anguished lyrics like “why do I feel justified in self-talk that just leaves me wounded? / I would never talk to someone else the way that I speak to myself,” and she demands to know “why does my own head treat itself this way?” The track ends with no resolution and no answer to these questions.
Other standout tracks include “Hirudinea” and “Nevertheless (She Persisted).” In the former, Kashan presents a furious indictment of fake allies, or “leeches,” of the feminist movement, particularly those who feign support for personal or romantic gain. “You’re always silent when there’s work to be done,” she accuses, right before dropping the striking line “you’re not a feminist just because you f***** one.” It’s not the most delicate statement, to put it lightly, but Sharptooth has never been subtle in their message, and their music is all the stronger for it.
In the latter, Kashan reflects on her journey out of personal hell and her hard-won victory over struggle. After nearly a whole album’s worth of growling, screaming, and howling, she gives her vocal chords a rest and sings, “I reached into the void, the darkness touched me with her hands / she kissed my forehead, whispered to me / ‘baby it’s not time to meet me yet,’” and then speculates that “compassion without compromise can only thrive when I include myself.” It’s a surprisingly gentle and yet fitting way to end an album that began with relentless rage and self-criticism, bringing everything full circle.
RECOMMENDED SONGS: “Say Nothing (In the Absence of Content),” “Mean Brain,” “Hirudinea,” and “Nevertheless (She Persisted)”
3. Evermore by Taylor Swift
RELEASE DATE: December 11, 2020
When Taylor Swift dropped her first surprise album Folklore last August, I was shocked by how much I loved it. My respect for her solidified once Folklore’s sister album Evermore dropped in December. It’s natural to compare Evermore to its predecessor, and each album will have its defenders – but personally, while Folklore was excellent, I think Evermore is slightly stronger.
“Gold Rush,” Evermore’s third track, is the first highlight of the album. The song begins with a lilting and ethereal string section and choral-style vocals before segueing into a pleasingly alliterative first verse. Swift sings ruefully, “I don't like a gold rush, gold rush / I don't like anticipating my face in a red flush / I don't like that anyone would die to feel your touch / everybody wonders what it would be like to love you / walk past, quick brush / I don't like slow motion double vision in rose blush / I don't like that falling feels like flying 'til the bone crush.” It’s a track that begs for repeat listens, if only so you can enjoy the lush syntax and unique imagery more than once.
Shortly after this comes the chilling murder ballad “No Body No Crime.” After her best friend disappears under suspicious circumstances, the protagonist of the song kills the friend’s husband and disposes of his body in a nearby lake. Swift gets into character on this track, singing eerie lines like “good thing my daddy made me get a boating license when I was fifteen / and I’ve cleaned enough houses to know how to cover up a scene” and “she thinks I did it but she just can’t prove it / no body no crime / I wasn’t letting up until the day he died” with unrestrained malicious glee.
“Coney Island” and “Ivy” are two more examples of Swift’s talent for blending atmospheric music, evocative lyrics, and compelling narratives. Despite a few lyrical misfires, such as the clunky metaphor in “Coney Island”: “we were like the mall before the Internet / it was the one place to be” and the overwrought “your touch brought forth an incandescent glow / tarnished but so grand” in “Ivy,” both tell stories stained with nostalgia, tragedy, and loss, layered skillfully over sorrowful strings and perishing vocals. The theme of beauty overlapping with pain reaches a pinnacle in Evermore’s title track. It opens with the all-too-relatable lines “gray November / I’ve been down since July,” then runs the gamut of emotions before winding down with the reassuring “I had a feeling so peculiar / this pain wouldn’t be forevermore.”
Evermore is a gorgeous example of what Taylor Swift can do at her lyrical and musical best. Separated from her usual studio embellishments and glittering pop sheen, Swift has crafted an album perfectly representative of the era it was created in: stark, moody, and bitterly lonely, yet undercut with beauty and resilience.
RECOMMENDED SONGS: “Gold Rush,” “No Body No Crime” (feat. HAIM), “Coney Island” (feat. The National), “Ivy,” and “Evermore” (feat. Bon Iver)
2. Afterburner by Dance Gavin Dance
RELEASE DATE: April 24, 2020
Afterburner marks the ninth studio album for Dance Gavin Dance (or DGD), and their fifth with current vocalist Tilian Pearson. While each album of Pearson’s tenure, from 2013’s Acceptance Speech to 2018’s Artificial Selection, has been well-received by fans and critics alike, Afterburner is the best and most consistent of the bunch. The band takes several creative risks with this record, enriching each track and creating a remarkably fun listening experience.
Afterburner begins explosively with noodly guitar and staccato percussion, care of the opening track “Prisoner.” Unclean vocalist Jon Mess, famous for his nonsensical word salad lyrics, screams endearingly baffling verses like “philosophy don't bother me / come back when you're trash” and “classic acid / put me back in the casket / weave me into the fabric / the filter is freaking out,” while Pearson soothes and smooths the chaos with his trademark high-pitched vocals in the choruses. A few tracks later, “Calentamiento Global” (Spanish for “global warming,” for the curious) spices things up with Spanish lyrics from Pearson, peppered with an exciting marching band-style drumbeat and an occasional drill sergeant whistle. Other album highlights include “Three Wishes,” an oddly heartwarming and uplifting tune despite Mess’s repeated shrieks of “multiple stab wounds!!!”, and album closer “Into the Sunset,” which features relaxed and shimmering instrumentation, excellent guest vocals from Bilmuri, and a surprising rapped verse from DGD guitarist Will Swan.
Afterburner is a shining example of band experimentation and risk-taking done right. It’s obvious throughout the record that all involved, from the main vocalists to the rhythm section to the featured artists, are having a good time. And I think that’s what makes Afterburner stand out the most; in a genre that’s (sometimes justifiably) maligned for taking itself too seriously, it’s a zany and colorful reminder that music doesn’t need to be dour to have substance.
RECOMMENDED SONGS: “Prisoner,” “Calentamiento Global,” “Three Wishes,” and “Into the Sunset” (feat. Bilmuri)
1. No Good Left to Give by Movements
RELEASE DATE: September 18, 2020
Movements have delivered solidly moody and reflective tunes since the release of 2016’s Outgrown Things EP, followed by their full-length debut Feel Something in 2017. Their sophomore effort No Good Left to Give takes the sound that initially caught my attention and elevates it to breathtaking and addictive new levels, making it my favorite album of 2020 by a considerable margin.
The album begins with the subdued, crawling “In My Blood,” in which vocalist Patrick Miranda laments he “still can't get up / stuck in the ceiling / I feel so f***** / at least I'm feeling.” For the thousands of us who have spent the better part of a year at home, imprisoned by both physical walls and the boredom, monotony, and the slow drip of their own thoughts, these lines ring viscerally true. Things pick up from there with the swirling “Skin to Skin,” a song about longing for physical connection – something I think we all can relate to after many months of social isolation. Other heavily featured topics include depression and anxiety (“Tunnel Vision” and “12 Weeks”), unfulfilling “fling” relationships (“Garden Eyes” and “Moonlight Lines,” the latter notable for its interesting use of spoken word lyricism in the second verse) and watching someone you once loved love someone new (“Seneca”).
No Good Left to Give ends with my favorite track “Love Took the Last of It,” an emotionally devastating yet soaring meditation on the aftershocks of a terminated relationship. Miranda ruminates on his culpability in the relationship’s failure, admitting that “I think I knew it from the start / eventually everything would fall apart” and “it was never really right, your hand in mine / but at the time it’s what I needed for a stable mind / I kept my secrets and I covered them in lies.” He pleads with his former partner to “build the blame and lay it at my feet / I’d break my fingers just to point them all at me / it’s my fault / spread the salt and I’ll be gone.” The song—and the album—closes with a dirge like melody as Miranda mourns he has “no good left to give” because “love took the last of it.”
No Good Left to Give is by no means a cheerful record. Even rare moments of levity, such as the band’s homage to their hometown “Santiago Peak,” are disrupted by rippling undercurrents of sadness and regret. But these are not happy times we’re living in, and sometimes it’s comforting to hear your own discontent reflected back at you — particularly when it’s done as well as it is here.
RECOMMENDED SONGS: “Skin to Skin,” “Tunnel Vision,” “Santiago Peak,” “Moonlight Lines,” and “Love Took the Last of It”
While I hope I won’t need to rely on music to maintain my sanity quite as much in 2021, I’m grateful for these albums and for the respite they provided during months of disappointment, alienation, and chaos. Here’s to better days—and even more great releases—in the year ahead.
A Beautiful Place to Drown by Silverstein
Folklore by Taylor Swift
Post Human: Survival Horror by Bring Me the Horizon
Tickets to My Downfall by Machine Gun Kelly
To Better Days by Slaves